Border Crossing: Worship at Tornillo Detention Center

November 5th, 2018

Border Crossing is a series of stories and essays from people who are serving in ministry at the US-Mexico line. We hope these reflections help church people discuss boundaries, borders, and border crossings.

On two Sundays this summer, I was privileged to be invited to help lead worship for the Central American immigrant youth held at the Tornillo detention center, east of El Paso. Now, three months later, this tent city originally built to hold several hundred persons has been approved for expansion to hold 3,800. Children aged 12 to 17 have been transported in and out by night, and some have languished there for months. Many have had to wait for fingerprinting and background checks, due to a shortage of federal workers to process the cases. The people managing the facility themselves sent a budget proposal to the federal government, showing that the cost of holding these kids is way more expensive than hiring more staff to process fingerprints.

In my opinion, the buildup of detainees contributes to a narrative of a horde of scary, brown-skinned adolescents here to hurt citizens of this country. And no matter how good the treatment might be at a facility, there is no good way for children, even older ones, to live in detention, separated from loved ones for any length of time, with an uncertain future ahead.

These were the kids we were to lead in worship.

On the last Sunday of July, at least 300 boys gathered in a very large tent for the first service. They were tall and short and many different colors. I have known many teenagers like these, and at first glance they projected an air of toughness. We can only imagine what situations they’ve needed to stay tough against. But when they come to you, and you look into their eyes, there is a tentative vulnerability, a receptivity, even sometimes smiles of joy in making a connection.

There was a team of ten of us—five from Dallas, three from El Paso, and two from San Antonio. We introduced ourselves by name and city only, and each member of the team was greeted with a huge cheer and thunderous applause. The boys were glad to be in worship! Our musicians led them in praise songs, and just like in church, you could hear when we hit patches that the kids knew well—their voices swelled to the top of the tent, and all my hair stood up on end.

We read Psalm 139, and I shared a short message about other young people who had made dangerous journeys—Joseph, Hagar, Baby Jesus—all whom God had accompanied, and all whom God finally used to bless others. In between we repeated verse 5 of the psalm: “Tu protección me envuelve por completo; me cubres con la palma de tu mano.” (Your protection envelops me completely; you cover me with the palm of your hand.) We used our hands and arms to embrace and cover ourselves as God does.

We shared a time of prayer as team members passed out cards and colored pencils for the youth to write their prayer concerns, without sharing their names. Nearly all were prayers for the safety and health of family and home, for their pending cases to be successful, and for quick release from the facility. I was able to bring cards home and continue to share them with people who want to pray these concerns forward. Even some of the staff shared concerns on cards.

The other worship component was the sharing of bread. We used no liturgy to make this “legitimate Holy Communion,” mostly out of respect for the varying traditions these youth surely represented—everything from Catholic to Jehovah’s Witness. I told them the bread is a symbol of Christ’s presence with us in every moment, a symbol of the gift of his life to us, a symbol that he will never leave us. But as some of us walked from table to table, sharing the bread with those who raised their hands, saying, “this means Jesus loves you,” I realized that most of the boys were indeed taking it as communion, holding out cupped hands to receive, crossing themselves. Often all it took was for one brave soul to stick his hand in the air to get ten others to follow. So I started saying, “el cuerpo de Cristo, dado para que tengas vida abundante.” Whether we meant it to be communion or not, they thought it was, so I stopped pretending it wasn’t.

The girls’ service that followed was different, mostly because there were only about thirty of them. They were shy and looked very young. My own daughter is 17, and I could not help but think of her in their place. The girls were shy, but just as with the boys, once we started singing, they let loose. We sang “Abre mis ojos, O Cristo” (Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord), and on the third line, “I want to see you,” their voices blew the back wall off the tent—“YO QUIERO VERTE…” The power of their emotion washed over me, and I began to cry. Then we sang “Sumérgeme,” and there were many closed eyes and tears as they sang from a place of literal dependence on God’s mercy, with literal fatigue and road and desert and thirst.

After it was over, as we drove back east, I felt heartbroken. Part of it was my own fatigue, but part was the burden of pain and fear I knew these young people would continue to carry until their journey reached its end, and maybe beyond that. It’s impossible to know from their prayer cards exactly what each has left behind, what trauma they’ve witnessed or experienced, both at home and on their journeys here. We sincerely tried to communicate hope and assurance and possibility, and most definitely the knowledge that they are beloved of God. And I know that some of them will make it through and will make a good life. But the fact that we had to be standing there in the first place made me sad and angry.

I’m glad to have been part of bringing a gospel word into that place. I know God’s word of life has power of its own and will not come back empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which it was spoken. I just have to pray and keep working to stay with that plan; I cannot get stuck in sadness, as those kids cannot allow themselves to do. Most especially I hope our prayer moves us to action on their behalf, as true prayer always does.

I give glory to God today for the power in Christ to give life in the midst of death. And I pray that I and we might find even some small portion of the courage and faithful witness of these brave young sojourners, these precious children of God.

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